Teddy Bears in Bear Country: Tamir, Trayvon, Eric, Michael, Jonathan, Sam, Nate…

Tamir Rice memorial, playground at Cudell Rec Center, Cleveland

Tamir Rice memorial, playground at Cudell Rec Center, Cleveland

The “teddy bear effect” is something I’ve touched on before in this blog and is now, more than ever, the topic of exigency. The slayings of Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, and Tamir Rice, among many others whose names are yet fully known bring to mind the work of one of this year’s MacArthur Genius Award winners: Jennifer Eberhardt’s “Deathworthy” study about how the dark skin and African looking facial characteristics of black defendants are highly correlated to the likelihood of their being sentenced to the death penalty.

The spontaneous memorials, such as the one pictured above, have popped up at sites where police (or wannabe cops) have murdered unarmed, often adolescent black males all speak to teddy bears as a visual and spatial phenomenon of race. Alongside the realities uncovered in the Deathworthy study, is another study by Robert Livingston. Coined the “teddy bear effect,” researchers demonstrated how and why our society can enact the “postracial” iteration of Jim Crow in the form of mass incarceration and all these brutal police killings directly alongside the amazing success of the Barack Obama presidency.

It seems, according to the evidence, that successful African American leadership —beyond impressive credentials, competence, and diligence — is accompanied by certain “disarming mechanisms” such as physical and behavioral traits that attenuate perceptions of black threat held by the dominant culture. It appears that some black men have developed an extraordinary psychological capacity to affect the feelings of comfort engendered by persceptions of cuteness in order to assuage white racial anxieties about black men’s purported criminality. Among these disarming mechanisms is that of “babyfaceness,” which some African American men physically possess (and may intentionally play up) because they realize how whites experience their “cuteness” as helpful in reducing the perception of black aggression. White experiences of fear or intimidation may actually be a cultural form of subconscious projection due to the realistic threat suffered by blacks because whites’ possess such inordinately higher levels of social power vis-à-vis their black counterparts in most cases.

Teddy Bear Effect Benefits Black CEOs (2009 Livingston).

Teddy Bear Effect Benefits Black CEOs (2009 Livingston).

Deathworthiness versus babyfaceness serves as empirical evidence of the quantifiably predictable quality of “cuteness” as a racial construct that too often means life or death for our black brothers, partners, and sons. It’s interesting that both studies, particularly in the case of Livingston, make clever nods towards the heavily anthologized Brent Staples essay, Just Walk on By: Black Men and Public Space,” in which the essayist refers to his habit of coping with whites’ perception of black male threat as a “tension-reducing” tactic meant to assuage white fears and and offer a sense of racial comfort in the public sphere. The kicker comes when Staples admits how “warbling bright, sunny selections from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons is the equivalent of the cowbell that hikers wear when they know they are in bear country” and speaks most eloquently to the strange dilemma of masculine empowerment and racial entrapment experienced by black men when moving through public space.  

Teddy bears in bear country, sadly, is the perfect trope for the beastly outcomes derived from the unchecked racist policies and legal processes of white American culture and jurisprudence.   #BlackLivesMatter

December 19, 2014. Tags: , , , , , , , , , . African Americans, age, art, babies, Babyfaceness, Barack Obama, children, civic culture, Civil Rights Movement, Colors, cute, dolls, family, masculinity, Obama, parenting, politics, psychology, racism, rhetorics, social media, space, space & spatiality, visual literacy, visual rhetoric. 5 comments.

#Ferguson: What’s White and Wrong with Obama’s AmeriKKKa

As heartbreaking and unjust as it is, the #FergusonDecision provides an opportune time for us to remind our respective families and communities during this Thanksgiving that the struggle for liberation among Africans in America hasn’t been so much about the giving as it’s been about the taking. This give/take has been the fuel in the engine behind US social strivings toward becoming a better, more robust democracy.

Black man, head thrown back and wailing in grief as family and loved ones try to console a father's grief.

Grieving father of slain black teen, Michael Brown.

This constant push/pull have been stirring and shifting in every direction with, for, against, and all around us for some time. We would do well to remind those around us that the supposedly discrete bookend events we attribute to 1954-1968 (or the time representing the push for Black Liberation commonly referred to as the Civil Rights Movement) was but one well publicized episode within an ongoing continuum of struggle. African descended peoples have had to fight for their lives since the founding of this country up until the present day to demand the acknowledgment of our collective humanity and respect for our basic right to exist freely, despite the centuries-long refusal by the dominant centers of white power and privilege to recognize as much because the push for civil rights has been far worse than the pulling of teeth.

And truth be told, that recognition has never ever occurred because the majority of white people woke up all of a sudden one day and decided to hand over a giant silver platter with Freedom sprinkled all over it. Though to learn the history of civil rights as told through the lens of our failed education system, you would think all of White America suddenly realized, “Here ya go black, brown, yellow, and red folk… Why don’t you take a little of this extra freedom. We ain’t using it right now and thought you might like to have some…” 

The facts clearly demonstrate something far more complicated because freedom was never given freely. It had to be actively seized upon—taken, as it were—through struggle, in spite of the imminent threat of death, certain violence, and utter destruction of everything about how the entire American system had been set up.

It’s important we make clear the understanding that the modern Civil Rights Movement as we have come to think of it was much more so about US national security than it was the modest capitulation of rightness over whiteness, let alone a sincere desire for white churchgoers and clergy to answer MLK’s immanent critique of Southern America’s version of Christlike behavior. (After all, “Christian identity” has long been a cornerstone of white supremacy while Sundays have and will likely always remain the most segregated day of the week.)

Workers for civil rights and freedom understood that if the US federal government really wanted the political economy of a capitalist system to prevail over the Cold War, the social apparatus would have to concede to the idea that money and the allocation of public resources and accommodations should have to carry the same value across the entire citizenry, regardless of color. Otherwise, global capitalism would be a hard sell as the vast majority of people of color around the world watched white cops sick German Shepherds on little girls wearing bobby socks and beating up on fully grown men who dared to do nothing more than be treated equally in the eyes of the law. All that being said, American style racism made Stalinist Russia look almost kind in comparison for the world of Asians, Africans, and Latin@s observing our political system from elsewhere.

Let’s take that in for a moment to be clear. What is at stake here is the threat to the survival and existence of people for one reason and for one reason only: Human beings were getting killed every day because they were deemed to be the wrong color. #Ferguson today. That it’s still a point of contention that Black lives actually matter in Obama’s America, is the most damning evidence to date that the push for civil rights is not nearly over and does not belong in a museum, to be placed on a shelf and held up as an artifact from a previous era for us to nostalgically recall as if we’ve all arrived.

And for all Obama’s eloquence and virtuosity with African American speech performances, the president’s consistent refrain pertaining to “the rule of law” and “zero tolerance for property damage” proves that having an African American president is not only insufficient for solving America’s racial problems, but proves that having a black Commander-in-chief is a solid win for those in favor of the status quo regarding the problems of racial profiling and other forms of institutional discrimination based on color.

This is why I take such strong issue with those who excuse Obama’s tendency to “give a little to both sides” when discussing race. In my mind, criticism for the ethics of Obama’s rhetoric should not be held back when it’s questionably applied to matters related to existential threats to black survival.

November 26, 2014. Tags: , , . #BlackLivesMatter, African Americans, Barack, Barack Obama, children, civic culture, civics, Civil Rights Movement, economics, family, history, masculinity, media, Obama, politics, race, racism, rhetorics, social media. Leave a comment.

A Canadian’s View On Our Disrespect Of President Obama’s Presidency

I think this reblogged post speaks to the idea of “American Exceptionalism” in regards to its relationship to black people — even among our North American neighbors above the 49th parallel.


The Fifth Column


America – He’s Your President for Goodness Sake!

By William Thomas

There was a time not so long ago when Americans, regardless of their political stripes, rallied round their president. Once elected, the man who won the White House was no longer viewed as a republican or democrat, but the President of the United States. The oath of office was taken, the wagons were circled around the country’s borders and it was America versus the rest of the world with the president of all the people at the helm.

Suddenly President Barack Obama, with the potential to become an exceptional president has become the glaring exception to that unwritten, patriotic rule.

Four days before President Obama’s inauguration, before he officially took charge of the American government, Rush Limbaugh boasted publicly that he hoped the president would fail. Of course, when the president fails the country flounders. Wishing harm upon…

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November 9, 2014. Barack, Barack Obama, civic culture, Obama, politics, rhetorics. Leave a comment.

Cute No More?

Barack Obama started 2013 off with a new swagger. It began with the Fox News generated “Benghazi-Gate” and all the hullabaloo surrounding the non-nomination of Susan Rice for Secretary of State. From that moment, it seemed like he was down for a brawl with congressional Republicans during the first press conference after his reelection win, saying if the GOP’s leadership didn’t like the ambassador’s handling oobama-shoot_2469253bf things, “… then they’ve got a problem with [him].”

Then there’s the issue of Obama’s continued defiance in the face of House GOP members’ budget demands, which stands in clear contrast to his demeanor after the last fiscal crisis. And now with Obama’s more strident approach to gun control legislation following theNewton school massacre and other shooting incidents, there’s this recent revelation that he’s a skeet-shooting enthusiast…?

Dad jeans notwithstanding, it seems the world’s about to witness a gruffer, rougher, less cute second-term Obama. I also think the POTUS now feels less need to traffic in racial cuteness and is more comfortable moving toward a more formidable leadership image — and this could be a good thing on some level. (Not that I’m thrilled about gun sports or drone attacks or extra-legal assassinations or that sort of thing.)

April 2, 2013. African Americans, Barack Obama, civic culture, cute, Obama, political campaign, politics, rhetorics, Uncategorized, visual rhetoric. Leave a comment.

Galvanizing Cuteness

Facebook MLK gun control meme

Facebook MLK gun control meme

Much has been made about the president publicly shedding tears in response to the latest spate of horrific gun violence, especially since many of the victims were such small children. Because my scholarship deals with the centrality of cuteness in the shaping of public and institutional policies concerning race, I make a critique about visual culture operating at the very nexus of American public race policy. As a critical race theory, the rhetorics of cute have the power to galvanize the public. I believe the persuasive effects of cuteness are deployed for the political contexts of commerce and energize Derrick Bell’s notion of  “racial interest convergence.” Whether framing public debates about Civil Rights legislation through the outrage generated by the church bombing of four little girls, the heinous lynching of Emmett Till, and underlying the logos of Norman Rockwell’s portrayal of Ruby Bridges in “The Problem We All Live,”  cute shapes public policy.

Cute is a longstanding strategy for winning over the dominant interests in public debates and motivates white economic investments to push for substantive political changes. Interestingly enough, the decades-apart public anger precipitated by the killings of Emmett Till and Trayvon Martin was not necessarily amplified by the visuality of cuteness, but was more about the gestures of cuteness as a performative act reflecting childish (and legal) innocence. Till and Martin, after all, were both going about the normal business of adolescence and visiting the candy store. The sheer cuteness of behaving as any child is expected to, at least in the cases of Till and Martin, provides a posthumous racial pass of sorts. Dominant perceptions of African American masculinity in the white public sphere are not so readily second-guessed, especially by the ordinary television media.

 "The Problem We All Live With," Norman Rockwell, 1963. Oil on canvas, 36” x 58”. Illustration for "Look," January 14, 1964. Norman Rockwell Museum Collections. ©NRELC, Niles, IL.

“The Problem We All Live With,” Norman Rockwell, 1963. Oil on canvas, 36” x 58”. Illustration for “Look,” January 14, 1964. Norman Rockwell Museum Collections. ©NRELC, Niles, IL.

Or consider the groundswell of public sentiment in support of stricter gun control laws (as in the case of the Trayvon Martin killing).  And, as alluded to at the beginning of this post, the heartbreak surrounding the tiny victims of the Sandy Hook elementary school is sobering. The media tributes honoring the mostly white classroom of innocent first-graders and educators in the small Connecticut town has been relentless. All this is to say, that I’m just as moved by this recent gun massacre as anyone else and wish that  color were not a part of this discussion. Though unfortunately, the rhetorical power wielded by the ongoing tributes to this group of slain youngsters does speak to dominant sentiments and racial perceptions regarding cuteness.

I’ve even heard some people personally criticize Obama for supposedly not demonstrating enough grief over the epidemic of gun violence prematurely snatching the lives of hundreds of Chicago’s mostly brown and black children. But how would we even know this to be true? It could be that Obama has publicly demonstrated pain over the deaths of this particular group of kids, but it simply eludes coverage. And what about in his private moments with Michelle and his daughters? From all accounts, the loved ones of many of these children were personally known to the first family. Some of the more extreme online memes claim that Obama actually delights in the drone attacks by  Afghan children have been killed as opposed to American kids tragically cut down by gunfire. This latter idea is utterly ridiculous as it commits the logical fallacy of moral equivalency in a most reprehensible fashion. On the other hand, the issue of Chicago gun violence is valid. Not because of Obama’s supposed lack of personal grief, but for how it calls attention to the lopsided racial narratives of commercial “news” coverage.

This racial rhetoric of cuteness continues to operate in surprising ways and draws focus to matters of racial discrimination and privilege. This is why I believe the materiality of cuteness is racially determinative of people’s life chances and helps us better understand the technological and ethical interplay of aesthetic judgements of human worth.

December 23, 2012. babies, Barack, Barack Obama, children, cute, family, gesture, history, media, Obama, parenting, photography, political campaign, politics, psychology, race, rhetorics, sentiment, visual literacy. Leave a comment.

Portrait d’une negresse: Artfully Remixed?

benoist-louboutin-obamaThe painting furthest to the left is called Portrait d’une négresse by Marie-Guillemine Benoist. The artist, a daughter born in 1768 to Parisian civil servants in 1768, created this painting in 1800 — only six years after the French ended their part in the African slave trade. Now housed in the Louvre, Portrait d’une négresse has since become a symbol of women’s rights and freedom for black people.

This iconic image has inspired countless imitations. A notable example is the Christian Louboutin 2011 Fall Lookbook based on several classic portraits photographed by Peter Lippmann. More recently there’s been the cover of Magazine Fuera de Serie (a lifestyle supplement to Spanish newspaper, Expansión) featuring a composite image of Benoist’s young slave girl, re-imagined as America’s first lady seated on the stars and stripes.

The reference is easily recognized by anyone who’s even vaguely familiar with the canon of fine art. Unfortunately, given the impoverished state of humanities education in America, the iconic meaning of this image has gone completely missed in the popular blogosphere.

The message, as Benoist originally intended it, represents the black woman as a figure of innocence and mercy. For the Hispanic world, deeply influenced by Catholicism, this representation of Michelle Obama inserts itself within the richly historical iconography of Our Lady of Guadalupe (or the Virgin Mary). The Spanish magazine article speaks of the first lady in glowing terms through the use of descriptive language like “intelligent, strong and classy” in order to convey the idea that Michelle functions as the president’s political backbone and social conscious.

Recent viewings of the magazine’s cover image have been mis-recognized by the American media. This, I think, is related to America’s cultural puritanism, which assigns any display of black female nudity to the field of anthropological curiosity or places it strictly within the domain of the pornographic. This point is aroused (all puns intended) whenever the subject of the black female nude is raised. Most American media outlets have obscured the offending nipple with strategic pixel placement or otherwise subjected the chocolate-colored areola to some other arbitrary redaction method. (Coverage of Mrs. Obama’s breast with a huge red star is among the most curious editorial objects noticed.)

This latest media dust-up reminds me of Janet Jackson’s Superbowl “wardrobe malfunction” controversy and demonstrates, by extension, America’s cultural fascination with the black breast — brown nipples, in particular — and highlights the racist American obsession with the sexual commodification of black women. Clearly, we can look at America’s antebellum exploitative labor practices of “employing” black women as wet-nurses for the children of white slave holders and understand this as a profound historical example. More generally, the cultural denial of breasts’ primary function for purposes of basic nutritional sustenance and the sexual fixation on this particular part of the human anatomy as an erotic object, when juxtaposed with the Eurocentric fixation on the gradient of colors from brown to black as signifying dirt or evil, might explain why this paradox still persists. Reactions to this Michelle Obama composite image easily call to mind a host of racist discourses surrounding black bodily hygiene.

What I find most interesting is related to the dismal state of visual literacy among Americans, which proves that critical approaches to reading images are so badly needed today. Alongside the nipple being perceived as indecent and improper, there is the problem of an overemphasis on appearance and form over contexts and content. (One gets the distinct sense that the same folk who can’t hold it together over a few misplaced commas and semicolons are the same individuals who are losing their minds over the sight of a little brown areola.)

As previously mentioned, so much ado surrounding the Spanish magazine’s supposed bad form has the unfortunate effect of overtaking the particular logos of the article and the collective ethos of Spanish religio-cultural aesthetic sense, in general. Moreover, and most egregiously, it seems to ignore the artistic pathos of Karine Percheron-Daniels who is known for her nude figure celebrity mash-ups. In fact, not only does the online version of the magazine article feature a nude likeness of Michelle Obama, but also featured are those of Princess Diana, Kate Middleton, and (yes!) Barack Obama too — all portrayed as classical nudes in repose.

August 31, 2012. Tags: , , , , , , . African Americans, art, Barack, Barack Obama, beauty, design, Karine Percheron-Daniels, politics, Portrait d’une négresse, rhetorics, sexual politics, sexual politics, visual literacy, visual rhetoric. Leave a comment.

Obama Roasts Trump

I made this video-audio mash-up during my dissertation defense back in March 2012 to serve as an example of Obama’s “cute” rhetoric in his roasting of Donald Trump at the White House Press Correspondents Dinner.  Obama demonstrates an uncanny sense of aptum with a  barrage of zingers to appropriately encompass the ridiculousness of Trump’s demands that he produce a long-form birth certificate to prove the merit of his national leadership. Given just hours prior to the announcement of the death of Osama bin Laden, we can retrospectively realize Obama was concurrently orchestrating the mission to kill bin Laden. His dissembling jeers are performed not more than 24 hours later after announcing bin Laden’s death.Obama delivers the news of bin Laden’s assassination in a tone that is somber yet resolved. When viewed in conjunction, these two oratorical performances demonstrate unequivocally Obama’s ability to rhetorically balance pop-cultural frivolity with the ceremonial tones of wartime speech — whether gauging his language when speaking about matters of urgent import or fleeting absurdity.

April 12, 2012. Barack Obama, cute, play, politics, race, rhetorics, time, time & temporality, TV, YouTube. Leave a comment.

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